Overview of Stinging Insect Allergy
Insect stings typically result in pain, swelling and redness confined to the sting site. This is often due to envenomation and has little to do with allergy. In the case of fire ants, there is often a clear pustule on a red base that is intensely itchy and often takes about one week to heal. More severe reactions include symptoms appearing over a wider area, but still contiguous to the area stung, (also called a large local reaction) or affecting other parts of the body distant from where the sting occurred (also called a systemic reaction). These more severe reactions often have an allergic component.
Allergic reactions to stings can occur even after many normal reactions to stings and at any age. It has been estimated that potentially life-threatening allergic reactions to insect venom occur in 0.4%-0.8% of children and 3% of adults. These reactions account for at least 40 deaths each year in the United States.
The majority of insect stings in the United States come from wasps, yellow jackets, hornets and bees. In the southern United States, red or black imported fire ants are commonly found, and they are a significant health hazard due to allergic reactions from their stings.
Symptoms of Stinging Insect Allergy
- Hives, itchiness, and swelling at the sting site
- Hives, itching and swelling in areas other than the sting site
- A hoarse voice, swelling of the tongue or difficulty swallowing
- Abdominal cramping, vomiting, intense nausea or diarrhea
- Dizziness or a sharp drop in blood pressure
- Unconsciousness or cardiac arrest
- Anaphylaxis, a potentially life-threatening reaction that often involves several of the above mentions symptoms
Diagnosing Stinging Insect Allergy
If you are concerned that you may have an allergy to insect venom, please visit your local Sneeze Allergy and Cough Center. Your allergist will take a detailed medical history, including questions about previous stings (how many there have been and where you were stung), your reaction to those stings (what you experienced, how long the reaction lasted and what you did to get relief) and any additional symptoms.
Your allergist may further investigate this allergy through skin testing and/or blood testing.
Management and Treatment of Stinging Insect Allergy
- Avoid insects as best you can
- Don’t walk barefoot in the grass, where stinging insects forage.
- Don’t drink from open soft drink cans; stinging insects are attracted to them and may crawl inside.
- Keep food covered when eating outdoors.
- Don’t use sweet-smelling perfume, hairspray or deodorant.
- Avoid wearing brightly colored clothing with flowery patterns.
- Wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, socks, shoes and work gloves when working outdoors.
- Be cautious near bushes, eaves and attics, and avoid garbage containers and picnic areas.
- Have a professional exterminator remove known nests and inspect for other potential nesting areas.
- Immediately inject epinephrine (adrenaline) if symptoms of anaphylaxis develop and then call 911 for further evaluation and treatment.
- Consider allergy shots (immunotherapy) for long-term preventive treatment.